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Beyond the Handshake: How People Greet Each Other Around the World

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Here are 10 different ways to politely—and physically—say hello

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When seeing friends, meeting strangers, or kicking off business meetings, a handshake is a warm greeting in many Western countries. But in other places in the world, not so much. Taking the time to learn how locals meet and greet is the perfect first step to making a meaningful connection when you’re traveling. From bumping noses in Qatar to bowing in Laos, here are 10 ways to physically say hello around the world.

1. Stick out your tongue

Blame this greeting tradition all on a really bad king. It all began with monks, who would stick out their tongues to show that they came in peace—and weren’t the reincarnation of a cruel 9th-century king known for having a black tongue. Needless to say, the greeting caught on.

2. Bump noses
Qatar, Yemen, Oman

Want to demonstrate that you view a potential business contact as a peer? Forget shaking hands; instead, bring your nose in for a few friendly taps. Just remember: Sniffing isn’t part of the equation and women should probably skip this one. 

3. Air kiss
France, Italy, Portugal, Latin America, The Philippines, Ukraine, and Québec, Canada

While in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico, São Paulo (Brazil) and Colombia, one air kiss is standard, in Spain, Portugal, Québec, Paraguay, Italy, The Philippines, and Paris, it’s two, whereas in Russia and Ukraine, it’s three, and in some parts of France, it’s up to four on alternating cheeks. And to add a little more confusion to the mix, there are some tricky gender and relationship rules, too. In all of the countries mentioned, women air kiss women, and in most of them, men air kiss women, but only in Argentina do men routinely brush cheeks with other men who aren’t relatives or romantic partners. 

4. Rub faces
New Zealand

If air kisses sound too intimate for your taste, try on hongi for size. While this pressing together of forehead and nose—in what Maori call a “sharing of breath”—is thought of as a quintessentially kiwi gesture of welcome, it’s actually symbolic of a sacred welcoming of a visitor into Maori culture. And it’s an honor not extended to everyone. 

5. Shake like a local
Botswana, China, Germany, Zambia, Rwanda, and The Middle East

On the surface, it may seem pretty straightforward, but a handshake isn’t as simple as it seems when you take it on the road. It’s right hand only in Middle Eastern countries, where the left hand is considered unclean. It’s also important to note that in these countries, visitors should wait for members of the opposite sex to extend a hand; if they don’t, nod and keep their hands to themselves. Visitors to China will want to lighten their grip, and folks introducing themselves to Germans should know to stop after one firm downward yank.

Not sure what to do if your hand is dirty or wet? There are country-specific procedures in place for that, too. In Morocco, you touch the back of your right hand to the back of the other person’s right hand. In Rwanda, grasp the other person’s wrist, unless, of course, their hands are muddy too, in which case, you just touch wrists. In Botswana, things are more complicated, even when hands are clean. There, the local handshake has multiple steps that should be completed as follows: Clasp right hands, shake up and down once, interlock thumbs, raise your arms to a right angle, grasp hands again, then release to a relaxed “shake” position before letting the other person’s hand go. 

6. Clap your hands
Zimbabwe and Mozambique

There’s something kind of nice about applause as part of a hello, isn’t there? In Zimbabwe, the clapping of hands comes after folks shake in a call and answer style—the first person claps once, and the second person twice, in response. Just be careful how you slap those palms together. Men clap with fingers and palms aligned, and women with their hands at an angle. In Northern Mozambique, people also clap, but three times before they say “moni” (hello). 

7. Put your hand on your heart

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It’s very formal, but this traditional Malaysian greeting has a particularly lovely sentiment behind it. Take the opposite person’s hands lightly in yours. Then, release the other person’s hands and bring your own hands to your chest and nod slightly to symbolize goodwill and an open heart. It’s polite for the other person to return the gesture. Note that men should wait for local women to extend a hand, and if they don’t, a man should put a hand on his chest and give a slight nod.

8. Revere your elders
Asia and Africa

Throughout Asia and Africa, honoring your elders is a given. This means greeting seniors and older folks before younger people and always using culture-specific titles and terms of respect upon first meeting. In the Philippines, locals have a particularly unique way of showing their reverence. They take an older person’s hand and press it gently to their foreheads. In India, locals touch older people’s feet as a show of respect. In Liberia, as well as among members of the Yoruba people in Nigeria, young people drop to one or both knees to honor their elders.

9. Sniff faces
Greenland and Tuvalu

There’s nothing quite like the smell of someone you love . . . or someone you’ve just met. In Greenland, kunik, the Inuit tradition of placing your nose and upper lip against someone’s cheek or forehead and sniffing, is limited to very close relationships. But on the island of Tuvalu, pressing cheeks together and taking a deep breath is still part of a traditional Polynesian welcome for visitors.

10. Bow
Cambodia, India, Japan, Laos, and Thailand

When it comes to bowing, the question isn’t just when to bow, it’s how. In India, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, put your palms together in the prayer position at heart level or higher before bowing. In Thailand, the higher you place your hands, the more respect you’re showing. On the other hand, in Japan, the deeper the bow, the more respect is being shown. And 90 degrees is the max. Just remember, no prayer hands. In Japan, men bow with their hands at their sides, and women with their hands on their thighs. Oh, and among the younger generations, a head bow (like a nod, but more pronounced) is becoming the new norm.

>>Next: 8 Unspoken Rules of Public Transportation Around the World

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